About My First Christmas

Knowing that I was born in January 1963, you might think that my first Christmas was on December 25, 1963. But in fact, my first Christmas happened only in 1996, keep reading to find out why – this is going to be the longest post you ever read in my journal.

Before the October revolution of 1917, Orthodox Christianity was an official religion of the Russian Empire. The Julian Calendar which is two weeks behind the Gregorian Calendar, was used both in Church and in civic life. 

After the revolution, the Church was separated from the state. Several months later, by a decree of the Revolutionary government, the country was switched to the Gregorian calendar. Christmas was denounced, along with all religious holidays, and Christmas trees were forbidden. That situation lasted until early 1930 were when the government decided to allow some of the fun to come back. Granted, there should not be any mention of Jesus. All the festivities were reassigned to the New Year celebrations. There was no more Christmas tree; it became a New Year Tree. The Bethlehem star on top became the Red Star. The Grandfather Frost remained more or less the same:). 

There were not enough trees for sale each and single year as far as I can remember, they were “a deficit,” and of poor quality most of the time. The “fir tree markets” were empty half of the time they were supposed to be open. You would go for a hunt to get just any tree, and even for a more extended hunt to get a good tree. I remember times when we had to tie together two or three trees to make it look acceptable. As a child, I was always afraid that I wouldn’t get a tree. After I turned fifteen, I took the matter in my hands and became a tree hunter of the house.

I find it hard to imagine that we didn’t know anything about Christmas, at least from the classic literature. But somehow we didn’t realize what a beautiful celebration is going on in the rest of the world. In the Baltic republics, Christmas was still celebrated, but since it was not a state holiday, and since the celebration was not encouraged, it was not that much of a tourist attraction.  

Then there was Perestroika, and all of a sudden, the news channels started to show how Christmas looks like in the other countries. A commentator would say: today the world celebrates Christmas, and there were images of decorated streets, Christmas markets, beautiful people, candles and ornaments. Also, it became permissible to talk about religion, and we started to learn about the meaning of Christmas, and the children theaters started to put on the Christmas shows. 

Suddenly I realized that the fir tree, the presents, and all other things I loved about the New Year, actually belonged to Christmas. Everything started to make more sense. 

I started to teach my children about Christmas, but it was very difficult to do when there is no spirit of the holiday around you. Holidays and celebrations are communal things. It was impossible to buy a fir tree earlier than December 25. It was impossible to give presents before December 31, when each and single child they knew would get theirs on New Year’s Eve. But I tried. 

We came to the US on October 23, 1996. And a month later, it was already “Christmas everywhere.” You can’t even imagine how I felt – that was more than a fairy tale! Everybody around me was into Christmas, the spirit was in the air, and things looked even more beautiful than I could imagine.

But there was another problem: I had no money. It was that period of my life, which I’ve described here. There was no extra dollar in my budget. I had no Christmas decorations, no tree stand, no money to buy presents. And I was told that Christmas trees are expensive. My co-worker Mark said: probably you could buy a small tree for thirty dollars or so… Thirty dollars! Where in the world I could find an extra thirty dollars?! 

On Saturday two weeks before Christmas, we were driving somewhere, or rather Val was driving us when I saw a hand-written sign: CHRISTMAS TREES $14. I yelled, and Val made a U-turn. It was a gas station, and the trees were trimmed pines, but boy, how beautiful they looked for us! 

I got a tree stand in K-Mart (had to ask people how it should look like:)). I got some basic decorations, a simple star with tiny light bulbs, one string of lights, one garland – for about $10 total. We made some decorations from the colored cardboard paper, and from plastic beads which we melted with an iron. We thought our tree looked beautiful.

Now – presents. There were supposed to be some presents from Mom and some from Santa – how else? I knew I could afford only ten-dollar presents from Santa, and even less than that from me. Val asked Pam whether she would let him take me present-shopping during the work hours, and she agreed. Val drove me to the Toys R Us. I walked the isles, and looked around, I cried at Winnie the Pooh price – it was fourteen dollars, and I could only spend ten. I’ve got two big Christmas Teddies – a boy and a girl from Santa, and a small doll from me for Anna, and I can’t recall what it was for Vlad. Done!

On December 23, my co-worker Mark stopped by my desk with two wrapped presents. He said: I was shopping for gifts for my nieces and nephews, and I thought about you guys. I thought you do not have any family here, and I decided to buy something for your kids. They are learning to speak English; these books will help them. Those were talking books with buttons – when you press a button by the word, the book would say it. Even to this day can’t remember this moment without tears in my eyes. 

That evening, when I was at home, my neighbors’ daughter knocked at my door. The neighbor was Frau Traudel; there will be a story about her in this journal, and her daughter Margit was married to a lawyer and lived in Evanston. She brought her presents to us: a Lego set for Vlad, don’t remember what for Anna, and a tiny box of Fannie May chocolates for me. I carefully unwrapped the presents because I wanted to reuse the wrapping paper. Val was flying to Saint-Petersburg the next day, and I asked him to deliver a present for Igor. I put some of the Alladin action figures which were donated to my kids by other co-workers and wrapped the box with the saved wrapping paper.  

The next day was Christmas Eve. Val stopped by us before going to the airport. The weather was very cold and snowy, and I was starting to get sick. Nevertheless, I made some salads and sandwiches, and Val brought a bag of presents for Anna and Vlad. I was thankful beyond any imagination 🙂

Val with Anna and Vlad. There should be a picture of me with the kids somewhere, but it is not in my house.

On Christmas morning, Anna and Vlad found their Santa’s Teddy Bears under the tree, and then I gave them my presents, and Vlad asked me why my presents are so small, and I almost cried again. But overall, the day was beautiful. I was sick, but I could spend a day in bed, because we had food leftovers from the night before, and Anna and Vlad were playing with their new toys and talking books.

And that’s the end of the story about my first Christmas, December 25, 1996. Which also happened to be Vlad’s and Anna’s first Christmas. And now you know why no matter how busy I am, I am doing these Christmas charities. 

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

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